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Sonnys Blues

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“Sonny’s Blues” Final Essay In James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” he uses the unnamed narrator also known as Sonny’s brother to provide an intimate insight into both his and Sonny’s lives, but also into their environment Harlem, New York. The narrator used his point of view and personal perspective to reveal both Sonny and Harlem and how the environment they were both brought up in has shaped them into the young men they were in the past and who they are now. This story begins when the brother finds out Sonny was in jail, when the narrator went to pick him up they begin having flashbacks from when their parents were alive and were speaking about racial issues they had been facing. Sonny finds his passion in jazz music. When he finally encourages his brother to listen to his music he takes him to the night club. He has a great epiphany realizing that their hardships can be turned into something beautiful. Growing up in an environment such as Harlem has had immense impact on the people sonny and his brother have become. This tough environment in Harlem would easily shape any person living in it but in particular Sonny and his brother. Harlem influenced the courses of action the brothers individually chose to take. The narrator described the city as a place that seems to entrap the people living in it and suck them into a lifestyle that they cant avoid. The lifestyle of drugs and crime, even if an individual such as the narrator doesn’t choose to participate in these actions, they are still surrounded by them. Sonny went into the military to escape this environment of Harlem. When Sonny gets home from the military, he falls right back into this lifestlye and lands himself a spot in jail for drug use. The military was only a temporary escape. The narrator learns that his brother Sonny whom he hasn’t had contact with in recent years, was recently taken into custody for the use of heroin. “And he’d always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem” (Baldwin 440). This statement is the first real insight explaining the way young children are brought up in Harlem and how Sonny ended up in a cell for the choices he made. The truth regarding the respectfulness of people including Sonny is showcases here, almost hinting towards this behavior as being okay because it is so common and known that this is the way both men and women are brought up. It is expected that this dis-respectfulness, hardness and evil are the outcome and the main shaper of the people in Harlem. These environments that should have helped Sonny become drug free did not work. An environment that helped Sonny more than the military or jail, was when he moved into his brothers apartment with his wife Isabel and their children. Sonny can focus on his music while he’s living here. Jazz music allows Sonny to express his thoughts and have an outlet of his feelings, other than drugs and crime. He often goes to the night club where he explores jazz music and often times plays his own. The nightclub becomes Sonny’s real home life where he feels comfortable and secure in his own skin, the people in the club become his family because he is accepted and applauded by the band and the audience. The narrator escaped this evil and became a teacher, although he ‘escaped’ Baldwin makes the audience wonder if he really has or if he is still entrapped in this environment. Sonny’s parents made his older brother promise to take care of him. The narrator loathes the decisions Sonny has made, and decides to make better decisions, which is why he became a school teacher. With all of his students in mind he begins to wonder into thought, “these boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (440). This so called pre-destination has a huge impact on both Sonny and his brother as well as the choices they are going to make. The narrator tries to help Sonny make better choices. These choices such as Sonny becoming addicted to heroin just to escape Harlem. Baldwin sets up this environment with great depictions of the area, many times shown through flashbacks the brothers continuously have. When the narrator goes through the tragedy that is his daughter Grace’s death from polio, this frightens him and encourages him to regain contact with his brother. He writes him a letter and when his letter receives a response he discovers that Sonny is released and he then hoes to pick him up. While driving home, Sonny requests to drive by the park, which is described as “stony and lifeless” and the streets are known to him as the “killing streets of our childhood” (445). These descriptions depict the harsh reality of the rundown streets of Harlem and gleam into why this has impacted the two brothers in the negative way that it has, there is no escaping this truth. Finally reaching the house the narrator feels a sinking feeling when he realizes he has brought Sonny back into the place where his troubles has stemmed from. “The moment Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger that he has almost died trying to escape” (446). The family sat down for their first dinner back together when they began to think back to when their parents were alive. The apartment is another environment that makes Sonny feel trapped, he is not free here. Sonny had in the past talked about both his interests in pursuing a career in music and/or joining the army but everyone strongly disagreed because they wanted him to remain in school, which he looked at like a joke and came back at his parents saying “At least I ain’t learning anything you’d want me to learn” (453). This quote entails that the school system is not what most people would view as educating the children in the right ways, the go to school and rather than receiving a proper education, they are introduced to by their peers’ drugs and other ways to escape their reality. Because of this Sonny follows down this path of destruction that had led him to the choices he had made for himself. Later they decide to hit the streets of Harlem when they come across a family who had been singing the gospel to their community; “As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.” (456).
Sonny believes her voice reminds him of the feeling he used to get from heroin. This event is when the narrator begins his epiphany although he doesn’t know this yet. He begins to understand Sonny’s passion for music and how it created a temporary get away from the reality of this environment. He then talks to Sonny about how the music makes him feel, this is when sonny replies with “It makes you feel – in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling” (457). The narrator agrees to go to the jazz club with Sonny to have a more personal insight on what makes him so enthused with music and the piano. The character Creole is introduced and has a wise viewpoint when it comes to this topic explaining to Sonny’s brother that, “He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness and death, in order ro find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in this darkness” (462). This is a way to overcome any obstacles that have been put in front of the two brothers or for any of the people brought up in Harlem facing these same hardships. This harsh upbringing hindered the characters, kept Sonny from having the best future that he could. Although the narrator supposedly escaped by becoming a school teacher, he is still affected in the way that he now views his students. When music is brought into the story this brings out the beauty that can also come from this type of environment because such a thing is created through the disaster and is a way to escape and make something so honest and great pertaining to the conditions they live in. this particular kind of beauty can only arise from something disastrous, and shows that this environment also shed the brothers a new light and a new beginning. The nightclub where Sonny plays is the final environment in which both brothers ironically find freedom. These men are not the same people they would have been had they not had to face these obstacles and overcome the struggles of the environment and most of all the city of Harlem. This could not have happened without the environment of the nightclub bringing the two boys to an understanding. This epiphany makes the narrator see Sonny’s point of view but still does not completely accept him, its not much more than a simple understanding between the two brothers.

Work Cited
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” Literature the Human Experience. Ed. Abcarian, Richard. Klotz, Marvin. Cohen, Samuel. Bedford St. Martin’s: Bedford, NY, 2015, 2007, 2000. 440-463. Print.

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